The fraud of voter fraud

It was the night of the election, Nov. 8, 1988.

I stayed in my office in the state capitol all evening. As chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada, I wanted to be on hand in case there were problems. There were none. The only calls I got were from the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles asking who was winning the U.S. Senate race. (For some reason, import car dealers had poured money into Nevada, trying to defeat Gov. Richard Bryan’s run for the Senate.)

But down south something was happening. We’d heard about official-looking notices arriving in African-American precincts in Clark County that threatened people with prosecution for voting. On election night, I monitored what turnout looked like in some of those precincts.

It foreshadowed what has now become a more sophisticated strategy—suppressing the votes of usually Democratic voters using ethically dubious means. Today, the technique is much more advanced, though no more ethical, and its advocates want to use state laws to accomplish their ends.

In state after state, Republicans and conservatives have generated publicity about nonexistent voter fraud in order to get laws requiring voter identification cards that are least likely to be in the hands of low-income people, groups noted for voting Democratic. At a time when voters have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the polls, Republicans want one more way to discourage them.

Campaigns against voting

“We once heard of a woman who continued to vote for her husband after he died, although our ability to contact that person failed. That was six years ago.”

That’s Washoe County Registrar of Voters Dan Burk trying to come up with some actual cases of voter fraud.

Down in Carson City, Clerk-Recorder Alan Glover also searched his memory. He laughed as he recalled one case.

“Had a little lady, I think it was four years ago. … She was 87 years old with Alzheimer’s, and they didn’t find out until Thanksgiving when her granddaughter and her daughter were at the table: ‘No, I took Grandma to early votes.’ ‘Well, I took her down on Election Day’”

It’s not surprising that such cases stand out in their memories. Although they investigate all charges of fraud, the cases of it actually happening are so rare that they’re easy to remember.

Nevada voters do have to provide identification to register to vote. After that, the problem is to get them to vote at all.

From 2001 to 2009, the Bush administration ran a crackdown on voter “fraud” cases. It was a factor in the U.S. Attorneys scandal when six U.S. Attorneys—including David Bogden of Nevada—were fired on Dec. 7, 2007. Some and possibly all of them were regarded by Bush officials as unwilling to prosecute weak voter fraud cases.

The administration did get some cases into court. Most resulted in not-guilty verdicts or were thrown out. Most involved innocent circumstances, such as already-registered voters who were given voter registration forms when they renewed their driver licenses and filled out those forms.

Not until five years into the Bush administration did its own U.S. Justice Department study the problem. That study’s conclusion: There is virtually no serious voter fraud. Most cases involved simple mistakes or poorly informed citizens.

That didn’t dissuade either the administration or Republican forces. Each time subsequent studies have shown the same thing, they dispute the evidence with anecdotal evidence or name calling. Look at the end of this article and I’ll bet there will be some reader comments relying on anecdotes.

Voting fraud peddlers are masters of the anecdote. They constantly cite isolated cases involving tiny numbers of people but never provide evidence of a broader pattern.

Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a fundraising mailing from Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the Tea Party group True the Vote: “In Mississippi, an NAACP executive was recently convicted on 10 counts of casting fraudulent absentee ballots. In Maryland, a Democratic candidate for Congress just dropped out of her race after it was discovered she had been voting in BOTH Maryland and Florida for a number of years. And, in Arkansas, four men were just arrested for trying to buy votes with food, ‘cheap vodka’ and whiskey. … These aren’t isolated cases.”

These are the very definition of isolated cases, because she provides no evidence that the cases of the six people she describes represent any broader problem and because, using the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of the Oct. 17 U.S. population of 314,596,635, the six people constitute 0.0000019 percent of the nation. Nowhere does she provide any evidence of a pattern of illegal voting.

Moreover, her language does not suggest that her activism is on behalf of all voters. Rather, she portrays herself as a combatant in a political contest: “True the Vote’s national volunteer ballot security program has the liberals very, very scared.”

On those rare occasions when voting fraud peddlers do move beyond anecdotes and get specific, it’s a fiasco. In July, True the Vote claimed that the registered voters in LaSalle County, Ill., amounted to 520 percent of the county’s population. It turned out that the group was using stale census figures to make its calculation. It has not apologized to JoAnn Carretto, the offended county clerk who had suddenly faced a media frenzy.

Last year after both the New York Times and Washington Post ran reports on the lack of voter fraud in the U.S., Hans Von Spakovsky, head of the Bush adminstration’s failed voter fraud program, responded with—anecdotes. He cited individual instances in North Carolina, Mississippi, the District of Columbia, and Florida, but no evidence of any broad pattern of fraud.

“All claims about vote suppression and supposedly huge numbers of voters who don’t have ID are based on a dubious study released a week ago by the Brennan Center, a partisan and unobjective advocacy organization,” he said.

Setting aside the fact that Von Spakovsky’s essay was posted on the website of the Heritage Foundation—a partisan and unobjective advocacy organization—in fact, numerous reports on the absence of major voter fraud depend not on Brennan but on other sources, such as those who actually administer elections.

Faceoff

What’s unfortunate is that the accusers seldom have to confront those election officials whose performances they impugn. It did happen here in Reno earlier this year, though, when Jim Moneyhun, a Republican activist who heads a group called NV Clean Up the Vote, was on a panel with Registrar Dan Burk (“Government approved voters?” RN&R, Jan 26).

Each time Moneyhun made an accusation, Burk gave simple explanations for the luridly expressed claims or audience members demanded evidence from Moneyhun. Each time, Moneyhun was unable or unwilling to substantiate his claims, as when he said he had personal knowledge of a Californian voting in Nevada but refused to provide names or other information.

Photo By MYERS COLLECTION This notice ran in a Reno newspaper just before public vote on alcohol prohibition.

Burk’s calm approach was successful in defusing concern among all but the most dogmatic in the audience as he urged people to use common sense and not succumb to outrageous claims that cannot pass a “smell test.” On the question of illegal aliens voting, for instance, he asked whether it was really sensible to believe that most such people would take the chance of coming to official attention: “Does it really seem like a person would do that to cast a single vote … at the risk of getting kicked out of the country?” In the end, voter fraud accusations were not validated in a situation where the accuser had to face one of his targets.

One charge Moneyhun made has been discredited but voting fraud peddlers keep using it. Moneyhun said that in 2010 the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) “set the software [of the Clark County ballot system] so that when you want to vote for senator, the button had already been pushed for Senator Reid.”

This story was generated by a single viewer to a Fox television news station in Las Vegas in 2010. The station put it on the air without checking it out.

Both the union and Clark County Voter Registrar Larry Lomax denied it. Lomax pointed out that no complaint had been made to election officials who would have investigated it. No evidence was ever provided, but the accusation took on a rich life of its own. Lomax’s denial is posted on more than 3,500 websites—but voting fraud peddlers have posted the original charge on more than a million sites.

Once accusations are made, they harden into fact in the conservative blogosphere, as at the website of the “National Legal and Policy Center.”

On that page, the Center—whose slogan is “Promoting ethics in public life”—has false information posted that has never been corrected: “Votes without voters—the notion seems like something from The Twilight Zone. Yet this outcome, the result of a mysterious computer glitch, may have helped re-elect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle, last week by a 50.2%-44.6% margin. Actually, the ‘mystery’ is very likely the doing of a local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). … Critics are charging that voting machines throughout Clark County (Las Vegas), where about three-fourths of Nevada’s population resides, were rigged to place check marks next to Reid’s name before a person even had voted. County officials insist that no tampering occurred. But the possibility can’t be dismissed, especially given that one of Reid’s sons is county commission chairman.”

As an example of the way this kind of false information is spread, note that nowhere does the Center flatly state anything as fact. That might be legally actionable. It’s all innuendo—“may have helped,” “very likely,” “critics are charging,” “can’t be dismissed.”

Techniques

Today, the hazard is less in the voting end than in the counting end—something voter suppression outfits studiously ignore. True the Vote’s website is devoid of any mention of the Bush fundraiser, Walden O’Dell, whose Diebold Corporation provided voting machines and software used in the 2004 election. Nor is there any reference to Hart Intercivic, which Gerry Bello and Bob Fitrakis of Free Press have reported was founded by former Bain and Company executive Tony Tamer. Hart supplies voting equipment to several states and a report commissioned by the Ohio secretary of state found Hart equipment flawed by security problems.

But even counting errors are rare, with numerous safeguards in place.

In some states, Republicans who don’t want to pay for health care want elaborate “voter protection” bureaucracies established. Strategic Allied Consulting, a business used by Republicans in Nevada and four other states to sign up new voters, was itself accused of dumping Democratic registration forms and other improprieties.

Voting fraud peddlers find ominous meaning in ordinary and innocent things, such as people who have inconsiderately died without remembering to cancel their voter registrations first. The “Voter Integrity Project” in North Carolina posts “Nearly 30,000 Dead Voters Found on NC Election Rolls” on its website. What the Project doesn’t tell the reader is that in a state of 9,656,401 people, 30,000 dead voter registrations is not out of line. But even that number did not withstand scrutiny—not even close. But it lives on, online.

Or there are charges about lots of false registrations. It sounds sinister. But this is a mobile society. People move from place to place, usually because of employment. They register at their new address without thinking to cancel their registration at their old address, but eventually they’re purged for inactivity. And would someone really try to vote at their new address in Sante Fe and then get to their old polling place in Portland to cast one more vote? Common sense, Burk asks.

Critics point to instances of voter fraud that are actually alleged registration fraud or other problems that have nothing to do with—and would not be remedied by—voter identification cards on election day. Then there’s the technique of pointing to disputes that sound suspicious but represent cases where no one ever got close to a voting booth because election officials spotted the problem and dealt with it. Glover describes a tax resident of Carson City who registered here to avoid taxes in his home state—and then was caught when he cleverly submitted an application for an absentee ballot to be sent to his actual out-of-state residence, triggering an investigative tripwire.

It’s not just private groups and Republican organizations that claim voter fraud is rampant. Sometimes public officials do, too. In January, South Carolina Atty. Gen. Alan Wilson notified the U.S. Justice Department that more than 900 dead people voted in the state’s presidential primary. But when the S.C. Election Commission undertook name-by-name scrutiny of the claim, it was unable to substantiate Wilson’s charge.

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler claimed an estimated 11,805 noncitizens were on the rolls, but after he got the publicity, he could only confirm 141 cases, 35 of whom actually voted—according to him. No independent investigation was done.

So it goes. Reliable private studies, official probes, press investigations repeatedly reach the same conclusions—only to be dismissed as “liberal.” After the New York Times ran a 3,136-word piece that found little evidence of voter fraud, von Spakovsky—he of the Bush administration—wrote in National Review that the “latest voter-fraud convictions in Troy, N.Y., must be very inconvenient to … liberal media outlets like the New York Times.” What happened in Troy? Here’s the anecdote: Two municipal officials were convicted of casting absentee ballots in the primary election of a third party. “Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere,” Stephen Colbert has said.

All this voter fraud activity serves a financial purpose. Pitting the people of the United States against each other is big business, an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year through political figures like Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct mail fundraiser who regularly sounds the alarm about supposedly illegal voting. Voter fraud alarmism helps fund plenty of rightist causes.

Public servants

The spectre of voter fraud as a political weapon has a long history. Three days before the 1916 election, the administration of white supremacist Woodrow Wilson announced that an army of “60,000 negroes have been transported recently from the south into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and other states” and that “a number of the negroes have fraudulently registered and that other election frauds disclosed include padding of registration lists reaching into thousands of false names in one city alone.”

Threats against voters have also had a recognized value, because there are always a certain number of voters who don’t want the hassle of engaging with officialdom. Three days before the 1918 election, in which Nevadans voted on whether to ban alcoholic beverages from the state, an ad headed “ILLEGAL VOTERS NOTICE” ran in the Reno Evening Gazette. Above the signature “MARK WALSER/Manager Nevada Dry Campaign,” it read, “We will arrest at the polls those who cast illegal ballots. We have a list of occupants of hotels, lodging houses, certain residences and other localities and will prosecute to a final ending every one, man or woman, who casts an illegal ballot. …”

No one today says there is no voter fraud. But this is a nation of 300 million people and election officials are good at preventing it, and they get better all the time.

And no one says the number of people who would be discouraged from voting would be large. But at a time when the United States is competing with other nations for the lowest voter turnout, what is the benefit (other than political) in driving any voters away?

Urban political machines were once famous for “voting the graveyard.” But that was in the days when political bosses controlled all the levers in local governments—county clerks, prosecutors, police. Today there is rarely that kind of control, but there are many electronic tripwires. In addition, trying to vote the kind of numbers needed to influence the outcome of an election is too easily detectable—and getting more so all the time, given the new concern over identity theft.

While voting fraud peddlers chase their will o’ the wisp, election officials plug away, getting better all the time at erecting barriers to fraud. At one point—Glover believes it was when Dean Heller was secretary of state—screening was done in all the California counties that border Nevada “and they did not come up with one person who had voted in both states.”

It is becoming easier for people to cancel old registrations. With the advent of online registration, Nye County Clerk Sandra Merlino last week told the Pahrump Valley Times that of every 50 people who have used the system so far, about 20 do so to cancel previous registrations. Washoe’s Burk works with the U.S. Postal Service using a tracking system that cross references change-of-address forms with voter records to remove some former county voters from the lists. Western secretaries of state are working on a similar interstate system.

All of that deserves attention. But it’s more politically marketable to demonize election officials.

If voter fraud were being covered up, there would be a reason for it. Dan Burk is one of our neighbors. He lives here, pays taxes here, sometimes has lunch at Michael’s Deli on South Virginia Street. He’s been Washoe voter registrar for 15 years, and was an election official in Oregon for more than 18 years before that. What’s his motive for covering up?

Alan Glover is a member of a family that goes back generations in Carson City. While still a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, he was elected to the Nevada Legislature where he served as a conservative Democrat in both the Assembly and Senate. He sold insurance before eventually becoming clerk-recorder. He’s a member of Carson Rotary. What’s his motive?

Before citizens listen to political con artists about the performances of people like Burk and Glover, they should demand more than anecdotal evidence. Burk, Glover, and other officials like them have earned a better hearing when they are under attack from voting fraud peddlers.

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.